Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Witness - Thoughts

In its entirety, Jonathan Blow's The Witness exists as a challenge. Nearly everything about it is designed to instigate and confound, from its textless puzzles to the verbose audio logs. But it doesn't seek to halt your progress—merely impede, momentarily. It's a game designed around the "aha!" moment, crafted meticulously together to spur your curiosity and wonder. The game's mysterious island will submerge you in instances of apophenia and splendor, kindling your imagination and asking you to seriously think about some of its puzzles. If you play it without a guide, you're bound to have an amazing time.

Broken down to its core components, the gameplay in The Witness is all about clicking on circles and drawing lines. It may not seem like there's ~30 hours of content with that description, but you'll interact with the game's systems in clever ways: perhaps you'll see multiple "exit" points for the lines, or there will be strange symbols on the panel that will bar your way, or maybe you can't even locate what you're supposed to be drawing lines on. Similar to Fez, there's a lexicon of symbols that you'll have to manually decode, but the way they're adjusted and oriented changes up constantly.

But that's what makes the game fun! You know nothing going into it, but by the journey's close you'll be witness to the furtive ways in which the island works. The game guides your hand but does so from the shadows, allowing you to explore any of its locations once you're free from the starting area. Of course some locales will be harder than others, but the nonlinear approach to learning the rules of the world make the game seem far more open and exploratory compared to many other puzzlers. Even when you reach the game's conclusion you'll still be interacting with the panels in very clever—and devious!—ways, never quite sure if you've fully digested everything the island has to offer.

And if the puzzles don't seem to stump you, the inscrutable text will. Blow's natural leanings towards "pretentiousness" have not been curbed since Braid, and I think that's great! I'm all for a larger diversity in gaming. There's a place in this medium for Mario and Call of Duty's A to B storyline just as there is for convoluted meta-narrative pieces like The Beginner's Guide and The Witness. Plus Blow raises some really interesting (if vague) questions with the texts compiled here, weaving their meanings into the "challenge" aspect of the game itself. The narrative is one part celebration of human ingenuity, and another part condemnation of our categorical tendencies, with a ton of angles to approach each side from. Plus Tarkovskiy gets "name dropped", which is pretty cool.

The final thing worth discussing is the art direction. Blow and his team absolutely nailed their attempt to make a modern Myst in style alone, having distinct portions of the island that work harmoniously together. There's a ton of color used in each setting; at times I found myself wondering why other games aren't nearly as vivid and lush with their color palettes. Seriously, the colors are so strong and distinctive that it almost comes off almost as cell-shaded, but continues to deceive you with its realism. Plus the aforementioned apophenia moments are unforgettable—there's so many little details put into the environment that the game may be worth it for the art design alone (er, as long as you don't mind the price of admission).

I have my own theories on what Blow was trying to achieve with The Witness, and I hope that if you're intrigued by what you've read, you'll give it a shot too. It's a welcoming game despite the isolation (kinda the inverse of SOMA), and the puzzles found within are superb. During my time on this beautiful and vibrant island, I only needed to look up a solution for one of puzzles out of the +500 I completed (the ship [sigh]); nothing is ever so hard that the answer lies out of your reach, though you'll likely have to break out the ol' pen and paper when the going gets rough. The Witness is a fantastic experience, from start to finish.

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